Alex Kane’s compelling interview with David Trimble offers a glimpse of the sort of calculations which may now be going through the minds of First Minister Peter Robinson and his senior advisers.
Lord Trimble is a man who, irrespective of one’s view of him, will be remembered as one of the most significant leaders of Ulster unionism. Unlike his predecessor, Lord Molyneaux, Trimble was not content for the Province to simply drift along under year after year of direct rule. Circumstances – such as the security forces’ morale-sapping infiltration of the IRA and then the republican ceasefires – offered him a chance to break what had been a long political deadlock.
But less confident leaders would, even when presented with such opportunities, have been cautious – particularly when so much of the Ulster Unionist Party was understandably wary of any dealing with the representatives of those who had only just stopped murdering their members.
As Trimble himself admits from the vantage point of a decade out of power, he made mistakes. Some of those errors not only cost his party, but caused pain to victims of terrorism.
But Trimble’s problems were not all of his own making. He was undermined from within, viciously attacked by the DUP and further betrayed when Tony Blair’s Government showed contemptible weakness in dealing with republican failures to live up to the commitments outlined in the Agreement.
Peter Robinson is unlikely to look to Trimble for advice. But there are lessons from the era for any unionist leader. Trimble promised what he couldn’t deliver and then appeared weak. “No guns, no government” seemed like a good sound bite in 1999. But it quickly became a millstone around the UUP leader’s neck when he went into government without IRA decommissioning.
Sinn Fein sensed his weakness and exploited it ruthlessly. Robinson cannot afford to show them any chink in his armour.